KEVIN M. KRUSE   One Nation Under God: How Corporate America Invented Christian America

New Books in American Studies  Network  MAY 22, 2015

Kevin M. Kruse

Kevin M. Kruse is professor of history at Princeton University and author of One Nation Under God: How Corporate America Invented Christian America (Basic Books, 2015). Kruse argues that the idea that America was always a “Christian nation” dates from the 1930s. In opposition to FDR’S New Deal, businessmen and religious leaders began to promote the idea of “freedom under God.” The post-war era brought new fears of the advancement of domestic communism. In a decisive turn from an earlier social gospel, these leaders established a Christian ethos based on the ideas of private property, capitalism, and individual economic freedom. Adding “under God” to the pledge of allegiance, designating “In God We Trust” as the official motto of the nation, the controversial attempt to institute prayer and bible distribution in American schools were all forerunner to the Christian Right at the end of the century. Kruse’s narrative focuses on how American leaders from different powerful sectors of the nation sought through legislation and public practices to unify a pluralistic nation under a capitalist-affirming Christian framework. The result was not unity but a more fragmented and divided nation. In unfolding the narrative Kruse challenges the often-benign public religious images of men like Billy Graham, Dwight D. Eisenhower, and a multitude of recognizable business leaders. The book opens up a timely conversation on the meaning of religious pluralism and the place of religion in American public life.

How the Civil War Became the Indian Wars

The New York Times    May 25, 2015

These two conflicts, long segregated in history and memory, were in fact intertwined. They both grew out of the process of establishing an American empire in the West. In 1860, competing visions of expansion transformed the presidential election into a referendum. Members of the Republican Party hearkened back to Jefferson’s dream of an “empire for liberty.” The United States, they said, should move west, leaving slavery behind. This free soil platform stood opposite the splintered Democrats’ insistence that slavery, unfettered by federal regulations, should be allowed to root itself in new soil. After Abraham Lincoln’s narrow victory, Southern states seceded, taking their congressional delegations with them.

Never ones to let a serious crisis go to waste, leading Republicans seized the ensuing constitutional crisis as an opportunity to remake the nation’s political economy and geography. In the summer of 1862, as Lincoln mulled over the Emancipation Proclamation’s details, officials in his administration created the Department of Agriculture, while Congress passed the Morrill Land Grant Act, the Pacific Railroad Act and the Homestead Act. As a result, federal authorities could offer citizens a deal: Enlist to fight for Lincoln and liberty, and receive, as fair recompense for their patriotic sacrifices, higher education and Western land connected by rail to markets. It seemed possible that liberty and empire might advance in lock step.

But later that summer, Lincoln dispatched Gen. John Pope, who was defeated by Lee at the Second Battle of Bull Run, to smash an uprising among the Dakota Sioux in Minnesota. The result was the largest mass execution in the nation’s history: 38 Dakotas were hanged the day after Christmas 1862. A year later, Kit Carson, who had found glory at the Battle of Valverde, prosecuted a scorched-earth campaign against the Navajos, culminating in 1864 with the Long Walk, in which Navajos endured a 300-mile forced march from Arizona to a reservation in New Mexico.

That same year, Col. John Chivington, who turned back Confederates in the Southwest at the Battle of Glorieta Pass, attacked a peaceful camp of Cheyennes and Arapahos at Sand Creek in Colorado. Chivington’s troops slaughtered more than 150 Indians. A vast majority were women, children or the elderly. Through the streets of Denver, the soldiers paraded their grim trophies from the killing field: scalps and genitalia.

In the years after the Civil War, federal officials contemplated the problem of demilitarization. Over one million Union soldiers had to be mustered out or redeployed. Thousands of troops remained in the South to support Reconstruction. Thousands more were sent West. Set against that backdrop, the project of continental expansion fostered sectional reconciliation. Northerners and Southerners agreed on little at the time except that the Army should pacify Western tribes. Even as they fought over the proper role for the federal government, the rights of the states, and the prerogatives of citizenship, many Americans found rare common ground on the subject of Manifest Destiny.

Fort Sumter

During the era of Reconstruction, many American soldiers, whether they had fought for the Union or the Confederacy, redeployed to the frontier. They became shock troops of empire. The federal project of demilitarization, paradoxically, accelerated the conquest and colonization of the West.

The Fetterman Fight exploded out of this context. In the wake of the Sand Creek Massacre, Cheyennes, Arapahos and various Sioux peoples forged an alliance, hoping to stem the tide of settlers surging across the Plains. Officials in Washington sensed a threat to their imperial ambitions. They sent Maj. Gen. Grenville Dodge, who had commanded a corps during William Tecumseh Sherman’s pivotal Atlanta campaign, to win what soon became known as Red Cloud’s War. After another year of gruesome and ineffectual fighting, federal and tribal negotiators signed the Treaty of Fort Laramie, guaranteeing the Lakotas the Black Hills “in perpetuity” and pledging that settlers would stay out of the Powder River Country.

The Indian wars of the Reconstruction era devastated not just Native American nations but also the United States. When the Civil War ended, many Northerners embraced their government, which had, after all, proved its worth by preserving the Union and helping to free the slaves. For a moment, it seemed that the federal government could accomplish great things. But in the West, Native Americans would not simply vanish, fated by racial destiny to drown in the flood tide of civilization.

Red Cloud’s War, then, undermined a utopian moment and blurred the Republican Party’s vision for expansion, but at least the Grant administration had a plan. After he took office in 1869, President Grant promised that he would pursue a “peace policy” to put an end to violence in the West, opening the region to settlers. By feeding rather than fighting Indians, federal authorities would avoid further bloodshed with the nation’s indigenous peoples. The process of civilizing and acculturating Native nations into the United States could begin.

disunion45This plan soon unraveled. In 1872, Captain Jack, a Modoc headman, led approximately 150 of his people into the lava beds south of Tule Lake, near the Oregon-California border. The Modocs were irate because federal officials refused to protect them from local settlers and neighboring tribes. Panic gripped the region. General Sherman, by then elevated to command of the entire Army, responded by sending Maj. Gen. Edward Canby to pacify the Modocs. A decade earlier, Canby had devised the original plan for the Navajos’ Long Walk, and then later had helped to quell the New York City Draft Riots. Sherman was confident that his subordinate could handle the task at hand: negotiating a settlement with a ragtag band of frontier savages.

But on April 11, 1873, Good Friday, after months of bloody skirmishes and failed negotiations, the Modoc War, which to that point had been a local problem, became a national tragedy. When Captain Jack and his men killed Canby – the only general to die during the Indian wars – and another peace commissioner, the violence shocked observers around the United States and the world. Sherman and Grant called for the Modoc’s “utter extermination.” The fighting ended only when soldiers captured, tried, and executed Captain Jack and several of his followers later that year. Soon after, the Army loaded the surviving Modocs onto cattle cars and shipped them off to a reservation in Indian Territory (present-day Oklahoma).

President Grant’s Peace Policy perished in the Modoc War. The horror of that conflict, and the Indian wars more broadly, coupled with an endless array of political scandals and violence in the states of the former Confederacy – including the brutal murder, on Easter Sunday 1873 in Colfax, La., of at least 60 African-Americans – diminished support for the Grant administration’s initiatives in the South and the West.

The following year, Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer claimed that an expedition he led had discovered gold in the Black Hills – territory supposedly safeguarded for the Lakotas by the Fort Laramie Treaty. News of potential riches spread around the country. Another torrent of settlers rushed westward. Hoping to preserve land sacred to their people, tribal leaders, including Red Cloud, met with Grant. He offered them a new reservation. “If it is such a good country,” one of the chiefs replied, “you ought to send the white men now in our country there and leave us alone.” Crazy Horse, Sitting Bull and other warriors began attacking settlers. Troops marched toward what would be called the Great Sioux War.

Crazy Horse and his band of Indians on their way from Camp Sheridan to surrender at Red Cloud Agency, 1877.

Horse and his band of Indians on their way from Camp Sheridan to surrender at Red Cloud Agency, 1877.Credit Library of Congress.

Early in 1876, Lt. Gen. Philip Sheridan, the Army’s commander on the Plains, insisted that all Indians in the region must return to their reservations. The Lakotas and Northern Cheyennes refused. That summer, as the nation celebrated its centennial, the allied tribes won two victories in Montana: first at the Rosebud and then at the Little Bighorn. The Army sent reinforcements. Congress abrogated the Lakotas’ claims to land outside their reservation. The bloodshed continued until the spring of 1877, when the tribal coalition crumbled. Sitting Bull fled to Canada. Crazy Horse surrendered and died in federal custody.

The final act of this drama opened in 1876. When federal officials tried to remove the Nez Perce from the Pacific Northwest to Idaho, hundreds of Indians began following a leader named Chief Joseph, who vowed to fight efforts to dispossess his people. Sherman sent Maj. Gen. Oliver Otis Howard, formerly head of the Freedmen’s Bureau, to quiet the brewing insurgency. As Howard traveled west, the 1876 election remained undecided. The Democrat Samuel Tilden had outpolled the Republican Rutherford B. Hayes by nearly 300,000 votes. But both men had fallen short in the Electoral College. Congress appointed a commission to adjudicate the result. In the end, that body awarded the Oval Office to Hayes. Apparently making good on a deal struck with leading Democrats, Hayes then withdrew federal troops from the South, scuttling Reconstruction.

Less than two months after Hayes’s inauguration, Howard warned the Nez Perce that they had 30 days to return to their reservation. Instead of complying, the Indians fled, eventually covering more than 1,100 miles of the Northwest’s forbidding terrain. Later that summer, Col. Nelson Miles, a decorated veteran of Antietam, the Peninsula Campaign and the Appomattox Campaign, arrived to reinforce Howard. Trapped, Chief Joseph surrendered on Oct. 5, 1877. He reportedly said: “I am tired. My heart is sick and sad. From where the sun now stands, I will fight no more forever.”

One hundred and fifty years after the Civil War, collective memory casts that conflict as a war of liberation, entirely distinct from the Indian wars. President Lincoln died, schoolchildren throughout the United States learn, so that the nation might live again, resurrected and redeemed for having freed the South’s slaves. And though Reconstruction is typically recalled in the popular imagination as both more convoluted and contested – whether thwarted by intransigent Southerners, doomed to fail by incompetent and overweening federal officials, or perhaps some combination of the two – it was well intended nevertheless, an effort to make good on the nation’s commitment to freedom and equality.

But this is only part of the story. The Civil War emerged out of struggles between the North and South over how best to settle the West – struggles, in short, over who would shape an emerging American empire. Reconstruction in the West then devolved into a series of conflicts with Native Americans. And so, while the Civil War and its aftermath boasted moments of redemption and days of jubilee, the era also featured episodes of subjugation and dispossession, patterns that would repeat themselves in the coming years. When Chief Joseph surrendered, the United States secured its empire in the West. The Indian wars were over, but an era of American imperialism was just beginning..

Boyd Cothran is an assistant professor of United States Indigenous and cultural history at York University in Toronto and the author of “Remembering the Modoc War: Redemptive Violence and the Making of American Innocence.” Ari Kelman is the McCabe-Greer Professor of the Civil War Era at Penn State and the author of “A Misplaced Massacre: Struggling Over the Memory of Sand Creek,” which won the Bancroft Prize in 2014, and, with Jonathan Fetter-Vorm, “Battle Lines: A Graphic History of the Civil War.” Cothran and Kelman are both writing books about the relationship between Reconstruction and Native American history

America’s First Political Cartoons

A look back at some of the illustrations that graced the pages of Puck magazine, America’s first humor magazine that satirized political and social issues of the day.
National Journal  May 22, 2015

(Joseph Keppler/Puck Magazine/Wikimedia Commons)

This cartoon, “The Modern Colossus of [Rail] Roads,” dated December 10, 1879, depicts New York Central Railroad President Henry Vanderbilt at the center as the most powerful tycoon in the U.S. railroad industry. Standing on his feet are two other powerful industry figures, Cyrus West Field (left), who controlled the New York Elevated Railroad Company, and Jay Gould (right), who controlled the Union Pacific Railroad.

(Frederick Burr Opper/Library of Congress)

Belva Lockwood, the first woman to argue a case before the Supreme Court, is pictured here alongside presidential candidate Ben Butler (labeled “B.B.”) of the Greenback/Anti-Monopoly Party. In 1884, Lockwood was chosen by the small California-based Equal Rights Party as their presidential nominee, and the media quickly seized upon the news.

(Louis Dalrymple/Library of Congress)

In this June 23, 1897, illustration, the magazine’s recurring character, Puck, (after the word “puckish,” which means childishly mischievous) is handing a bouquet of flowers labeled “1837” and “1897” to Queen Victoria, who is sitting on a throne, holding a scepter, and leaning forward to accept the flowers.

(Udo J. Kepple/Puck Magazine/Wikimedia Commons)

This cartoon, dated March 30, 1898, depicts Richard “Boss” Croker, the head of New York City’s Tammany Hall, as the sun, with politicians and people from various professions revolving around him. With Tammany Hall, Croker controlled one of the most powerful political institutions of his time.

(Louis Dalrymple/Puck Magazine/Wikimedia Commons)

A cartoon, dated May 11, 1898, urging war with Spain over Cuba. A month earlier, the United States had declared war on Spain after the sinking of the battleship Maine in Havana harbor on February 15, 1898. The bottom of the photo reads, “The duty of the hour: To save her not only from Spain, but from a worse fate.” The Spanish-American War eventually ended with the signing of the Treaty of Paris on December 1898, after Spain lost control of Cuba, Puerto Rico, the Philippines, Guam, and other islands.

(Wikimedia Commons)

A 1901 cartoon depicting business magnate John D. Rockefeller, founder of Standard Oil, one of the world’s first and largest multinational corporations. Rockefeller stands on a podium with his company’s name and wears a crown labeled with the names of major railroads. In 1901, an anarchist assassinated President McKinley and included corporations like Standard Oil among his antitrust rhetoric.

(Udo J. Kepple/Puck Magazine/Library of Congress)

(Udo J. Kepple/Puck Magazine/Library of Congress)

In this illustration from April 1, 1903, Nicholas II, the last czar of Russia, is kneeling on one knee before a pillow, on which rests a scroll of papers labeled “Ukase civil and religious reforms,” with rays of light labeled “Enlightenment” beaming down on him. Nicholas II’s reign marked a turbulent time of immense political change in Russian history, and he and his family were executed on July 17, 1918.

(Udo J. Kepple/Puck Magazine/Library of Congress)

This March 9, 1904, illustration shows steel magnate Charles M. Schwab as Napoleon sitting on a rock in the middle of the ocean, looking back at the setting sun labeled “Business Reputation.” In his hands are papers labeled “Investigation Ship Building Scandal,” and other papers labeled “Steel Trust” are in his coat pocket.

This March 9, 1904, illustration shows steel magnate Charles M. Schwab as Napoleon sitting on a rock in the middle of the ocean, looking back at the setting sun labeled “Business Reputation.” In his hands are papers labeled “Investigation Ship Building Scandal,” and other papers labeled “Steel Trust” are in his coat pocket.

(Frank A. Nankivell/Library of Congress)

A Fourth of July cartoon from 1905 showing a crowd of people celebrating a spinning firework display with the head of Uncle Sam at the center.

(Frank A. Nankivell)


This illustration, dated February 2, 1910, shows banker John Pierpont “J.P.” Morgan clutching to his chest large New York City buildings labeled “Billion Dollar Bank Merger.” In the foreground, a young child puts a coin in a “toy bank” and Morgan’s left arm reaches around the buildings to grab it for himself. Three years earlier, during the Panic of 1907, Morgan resolved a banking crisis after major New York banks were on the verge of bankruptcy. The U.S. Federal Reserve System was created following the Panic, which the magazine cover alludes to with its title, “The Central Bank—A look back at some of the illustrations that graced the pages of Puck magazine, America’s first humor magazine that satirized political and social issues of the day.Why should Uncle Sam establish one, when Uncle Pierpont is already on the job?”

(Brynolf Wennerberg)

This illustration, dated July 25, 1914, shows a tall beautiful woman with red hair, wearing a long green dress and a headband with a feather. She is holding up her hands and perched on her fingers are several diminutive male figures who are courting her with bouquets of flowers, bags of money, serenading her, appealing to her, and even threatening suicide.

(Henry Mayer/Puck Publishing Corporation/Library of Congress)

A torch-bearing woman labeled “Votes for Women,” symbolizing the awakening of the nation’s women to the desire for suffrage, strides across the Western states, where women already had the right to vote, toward the East where women are reaching out to her, dated February 20, 1915.

(Rolf Armstrong/Library of Congress)

In this February 20, 1915, illustration, Puck is pictured with a pencil in his hand, next to a woman wearing a uniform and a sash labeled “Votes for Women.”

(Library of Congress)

This cartoon, dated October 9, 1915, “I Did Not Raise My Girl To Be a Voter,” is a parody of the anti-World War I protest song “I Did Not Raise My Boy To Be A Soldier,” with the context altered to women’s suffrage. A conductor labeled “political boss” leads a lone female soloist surrounded by a male chorus with various labels, including “procurer,” “child-labor employer,” and “sweat-shop owner.” Arguments in favor of granting women the right to vote included the contention that female voters would support laws that reduced prostitution, labor abuses, and other social evils.

Annum Masroor

Audience Engagement Fellow


Annum Masroor is an audience engagement fellow at National Journal. Previously, she was an intern at The Nation, Salon.com, and Democracy Now!. She graduated from the University of Georgia with a B.A. in international affairs and Arabic, and from Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism with an M.S. in journalism. She is from Savannah, GA.

Malcolm X y el pensamiento nacionalista caribeño

Francisco J. Concepción

El Post Antillano    22 de mayo de 2015

thrykjyjUsualmente, la visión que tenemos de nuestro Caribe es que solo recibimos, pero no damos nada a los imperios. Somos las víctimas del imperialismo europeo y luego del imperialismo estadounidense. Solemos ver nuestra historia como sujetos pasivos que solo hemos sido sometidos por las fuerzas externas. Esta visión de la historia solo nos ayuda a comprender una parte de nuestra realidad. No voy a declarar una gran resistencia, una gran lucha, un gran cimarronaje, tampoco voy a inventarme próceres que no hicieron lo que quisiéramos que hubieren hecho. Pero quiero hoy mirar un poco más profundamente cómo es que desde el Caribe hemos transformado, con nuestras ideas, el mundo que nos rodea.

Malcolm X, Malcolm Little, como se llamó al nacer, hubiera cumplido noventa años el pasado 19 de mayo si no hubiera sido asesinado en el 1965. Malcolm X fue asesinado el 21 de febrero de 1965, Albizu murió el 21 de abril de 1965, no olvidemos eso. Hoy, y ya hace unos veinte años, Malcolm es reconocido como una de los pensadores políticos negros de Estados Unidos más importantes y, tal vez, más originales. Todos conocemos las películas, los libros, las reseñas, sus debates con Martin Luther King, y los debates que su figura ha provocado. Uno de esos debates está relacionado con el uso de la violencia como forma de resistencia ante el racismo blanco.

Mientras que Martin Luther King se destacó como el negro de los blancos por su promoción de la no-violencia, Malcolm se convirtió en el promotor principal de la autodefensa de los negros ante la agresión blanca.

La voz de este líder miembro de la Nación del Islam, luego fundador de la Organización por la Unidad Afroamericana, se convirtió en el reto principal que tuvo que enfrentar el sistema de privilegio blanco, y de clase, en Estados Unidos. Esta voz tan reconocida está enmarcada en un contexto determinado que aún tiene que ser estudiado con detenimiento. La voz de Malcolm X está impregnada de la voz de su padre, quien fuera un predicador bautista y seguidor de Marcus Garvey, el organizador, pensador y dirigente político oriundo de Jamaica. Pero la voz de Malcolm también refleja la voz de su madre, Louise Little, oriunda de Granada, la isla del Caribe que fuera invadida por Estados Unidos bajo la administración de Ronald Reagan.

Desde esta perspectiva, no hay duda de que Malcolm refleja una voz plenamente caribeña, por el legado de Marcus Garvey, quien se destacara por una prédica radicalmente contraria a la integración racial y a favor del nacionalismo negro dentro de Estados Unidos. Ese nacionalismo que ha sido sofocado y escondido detrás del saneamiento que se hizo de la imagen de Malcolm X con la publicación de su autobiografía. Manning Marable, en su libro Malcolm X: A life of reinvention, demuestra que la autobiografía de Malcolm trata de esconder su radicalismo nacionalista detrás de su conversión al islam sunita que se anunció en el 1964. Este ocultamiento ha servido para dejar de un lado la dimensión caribeña del pensamiento de Malcolm, sobre todo, porque los autores blancos, que escriben desde el mismo privilegio que atacó Malcolm, han enfatizado su historia y discursos luego de 1964 y han tratado de obviar, tildándolo de locuras, su nacionalismo que estuvo atado a su experiencia en la Nación del Islam y al pensamiento de Marcus Garvey.

Ese pensamiento político está enmarcado en la historia fruto de la plantación. Esa plantación que tanto caracteriza al sur de Estados Unidos, pero también al Caribe. No olvidemos que Colin Woodard, en su libro American Nations, demuestra que la plantación sureña de Estados Unidos tiene su origen en Barbados, es decir, que esa plantación, como sistema, es de origen caribeño. Esa misma plantación que caracteriza la construcción de la mentalidad negra del Caribe. Esa plantación que marca profundamente las palabras del Coronel Riggs cuando anuncia que dará guerra contra todos los puertorriqueños, como muestra el libro de Nelson A Denis, War against all Puerto Ricans. Malcolm parte del análisis de la negritud que es fruto de la plantación, por eso es que podemos decir que su voz es parte de una reflexión caribeña que intenta colocar nuestra realidad, como hijos de la plantación, en medio de un mundo que está en proceso de globalizarse.

Malcolm X hace una aportación importante al pensamiento nacionalista, sobre todo al puertorriqueño, al reconocer que hay una dimensión internacional de dicho pensamiento. El ataque que hace Carlos Pabón, en su libro Polémicas, al nacionalismo puertorriqueño, donde afirma que adoptó un tercermundismo que le dirigió a un nacionalismo menos socialista y más insular, se debilita ante la evidencia del desarrollo internacionalista del nacionalismo negro en el pensamiento de Malcolm X. Si Malcolm comienza a hablar de la Conferencia de Bandung, de 1954, como el modelo del internacionalismo negro y de la unidad afroamericana, es porque dicho evento, tercermundista por excelencia, constituye un cambio radical en la construcción de las voces poscoloniales del mundo. En 1955 Malcolm adopta el tercermundismo poscolonial como el modelo para lo que luego sería su propuesta política en la década de los sesenta.

El Caribe, mundo de la plantación, pero también del cimarrón, es el referente fundamental del desarrollo del pensamiento de Malcolm X. Su reunión con Fidel Castro, a principios de los sesenta, es un ejemplo más de cómo el Caribe va configurando el pensamiento de Malcolm. Al final de su vida, cuando funda la Organización por la Unidad Afroamericana, anuncia que no se trata de una organización solo de Estados Unidos. Malcolm dice que se trata de una organización que quiere lograr la liberación del negro en todo el hemisferio occidental, desde el Caribe, América Latina y Estados Unidos. Esa organización es una alianza transnacional, al estilo de la Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) de Marcus Garvey, fundada en Jamaica, luego llevada a Estados Unidos.

Malcolm X representa un nacionalismo internacionalista, poscolonial, de origen caribeño que aspira a establecer alianzas transnacionales que debiliten el sistema de privilegio blanco. Este nacionalismo transnacional que se refleja en el pensamiento de Malcolm no es muy distinto del nacionalismo de Pedro Albizu Campos, quien comienza su proyecto político viajando por América Latina y el Caribe. En este momento no podemos dejar de considerar que probablemente el pensamiento de Malcolm X y de Albizu era mucho más semejante, a pesar de sus diferencias originales, al final de sus vidas. Ambos, muertos en el 1965, asesinados por el mismo poder, representan una estirpe nacionalista poscolonial que se articuló como un reto al privilegio imperialista blanco. Ambos fueron voces que promovieron el uso de la violencia de los de “abajo” como un instrumento válido de defensa de los pueblos.

Malcolm X es un pensador caribeño, de eso no tengo dudas, y su aportación tiene que ser parte de nuestros debates hoy. El reto es mayor, una globalización que reestructura y restablece las cadenas de poder que el antiimperialismo de los sesenta pretendió combatir. La voz de Malcolm X se refleja en las aspiraciones a un mundo de justicia, pero de una justicia de verdad, justicia con equidad.

Crédito foto: Cheikh.Ra Films, http://www.flickr.com, bajo licencia de Creative Commons (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/)

HEATHER COX RICHARDSON  Wounded Knee: Party Politics and the Road to an American Massacre


New Books on Native American Studies  MARCH 19, 2011

Heather Cox Richardson

[Crossposted from New Books in History] Of all the events in American history, two are far and away the most troubling: slavery and the near-genocidal war against native Americans. In truth, we’ve dealt much better with the former than the latter. The slaves were emancipated. After a long and painful struggle, their descendants won their full civil rights. Though that struggle is not yet finished, near equality has been reached in many areas of American life. And almost all Americans understand that slavery was wrong. None of this can be said about the campaign against native Americans. Instead of emancipation, the Indians–or rather those left after the slaughter–were “removed” to reservations where their way of life was destroyed. After a long and painful struggle, many of their descendants are still in those reservations and living in poverty. They struggle still, but are not equal to other Americans by most measures. And many Americans refuse to believe that the U.S. was wrong in killing, sequestering, and impoverishing the native Americans.

They are wrong to do so, for we know what happened and why thanks to historians such as Heather Cox Richardson. In her eye-opening new book Wounded Knee: Party Politics and the Road to an American Massacre(Basic Books, 2010) she shows just how calculated, self-serving, and even spiteful the White assault on the Plains Indians was. Despite what they said (mostly to the Indians themselves), the Whites never had any real intention of allowing the Sioux and others to keep their land, maintain their way of life, or even to continue to exist. It was clear to them that the Indians would either become White (meaning would take up farming) or would go. The Whites weren’t exactly cynics; rather they were self-deceiving fatalists. They came to believe that destiny itself compelled them to assimilate or annihilate the Indians.

But destiny didn’t destroy the Plains Indians. The government of the United States of America did.

The Legacy of Malcolm X

Malcolm X died fifty years ago today, just as he was moving toward revolutionary ideas that challenged oppression in all its forms.

Jacobin  February 21, 2015

Michael Ochs Archives / Corbis

Michael Ochs Archives / Corbis

Racial segregation was not the law in the postwar North, but it was the reality. In virtually all aspects of life, Northern blacks encountered racism and segregation. Blacks who left the South found themselves forced to live in huge urban ghettos and educate their children in inferior schools. Skilled or professional jobs were reserved for whites. Blacks were constantly subject to white authority, especially police harassment.

Almost a quarter of blacks said they had been mistreated by the police, and 40 percent said they had seen others abused. Any illusions held by Southern blacks about the liberal North were not held by those already living there. And while Northern blacks were inspired by the struggles in the South, their conditions made them receptive to a movement independent of — and quite different from — the one led by Martin Luther King Jr’s Southern Christian Leadership Council.

In the first years of the civil rights struggle, the most significant organizational expression of this new movement was the Nation of Islam. By the late 1950s, the group’s membership reached an estimated one hundred thousand, with Malcolm X as its most prominent member.

In formal terms, the ideas of the Nation of Islam were profoundly conservative. The organization combined elements of orthodox Islam with ideas of its own making, preaching a doctrine of hard work, thrift, obedience, and humility. Seeing economic independence from white society as crucial, the organization also encouraged its members to “buy black.” The Nation of Islam established dozens of businesses, owned farmland, and built mosques in most major Northern cities. The organization did not condemn capitalism, only whites. Indeed, many Black Muslims looked to emulate the success of white capitalists.

Nation of Islam leader Elijah Muhammad called for establishing an independent black state — in the United States or elsewhere. But beyond pressing for demands or defending their interests, the organization was hostile to political involvement. That such an inward-looking religious sect was capable of substantial growth is a testimony to the widespread bitterness of large numbers of urban blacks. To hundreds of young recruits, the Nation of Islam represented self-respect, self-reliance, and pride.

The bold and articulate Malcolm X quickly became a pull for more militants to join the Nation of Islam, with appeals designed to highlight the hypocrisy of white elites. In response to the charge that the Nation was racist, Malcolm said, unapologetically, “If we react to white racism with a violent reaction, to me that’s not black racism. If you come to put a rope around my neck and I hang you for it, to me that’s not racism. Yours is racism, but my reaction has nothing to do with racism.”

Malcolm X rejected the view that integration into American society was either possible or desirable and viewed the federal government and the Democratic Party not as allies, but as part of the problem. And he was sharply critical of liberals who talked about racism in the South, but had nothing to say about conditions in the North, saying, “I will pull off that liberal’s halo that he spends such efforts cultivating!”

Malcolm X was also sharply critical of the civil rights movement’s leaders. Far from leading the struggle, he saw them as containing it.

He went on to attack the whole premise of nonviolence that underlay the Southern desegregation movement. Instead, he argued for black self-defense: “Be peaceful, be courteous, obey the law, respect everyone; but if someone puts a hand on you, send him to the cemetery. That’s a good religion. In fact, that’s the old-time religion. . . . Preserve your life, it’s the best thing you’ve got. And if you’ve got to give it up, let it be even-steven.”

Technically, Malcolm X was only amplifying the teachings of Elijah Muhammad, and indeed always prefaced any of his speeches with the phrase “Elijah Muhammad teaches . . .” But Malcolm X had turned these ideas into an indictment of the system, increasingly breaking out of the straitjacket of the Nation of Islam.

While Muhammad shunned politics, Malcolm was becoming more political. One Muslim complained, “It was Malcolm who injected the political concept of ‘black nationalism’ into the Black Muslim movement, which was essentially religious in nature.”

Aware that the growing politicization of the movement was having an effect on the Nation of Islam, including its leading spokesperson, Elijah Muhammad had taken measures to reassert his control.

A police attack in Los Angeles in 1962 drove home the bankruptcy of the Nation of Islam’s politics. In April 1962, a Black Muslim had been killed and several wounded by the Los Angeles police department. Malcolm X immediately flew out to Los Angeles to direct the organization’s response. The Nation of Islam preached self-defense, and the police murder seemingly called for retaliatory action. But Elijah Muhammad prevented his followers from organizing a sustained self-defense campaign.

Verbal radicalism, often extreme in its denunciations of whites, was acceptable in an earlier period when members of the Nation of Islam were establishing their reputation as opponents of the system. But the explosion of anger among blacks demanded more than words; it demanded action, and that was one thing Elijah Muhammad would not countenance.


Out of the Nation of Islam

Malcolm X’s break with the Nation of Islam finally came in December 1963. Responding to a question from the audience at a meeting in New York City, Malcolm attributed John F. Kennedy’s assassination to the hate and violence produced by a society that whites themselves had created.

Although the statement was consistent with the hostility Black Muslim ministers had expressed to the US administration in the past, Elijah Muhammad nevertheless informed Malcolm that he would be suspended for ninety days so that “Muslims everywhere can be disassociated from the blunder.” It soon became clear that the suspension was in fact an expulsion.

On March 8, 1964, Malcolm X formally announced his break with the Nation of Islam. The Black Muslim movement, he said, “had gone as far as it can because it was too sectarian and too inhibited.” He advocated greater engagement in the black struggles exploding around the country, warning that the Black Muslims could find themselves “one day suddenly separated from the Negroes’ frontline struggle.”

In order to become involved in the civil rights movement, Malcolm drew the conclusion that he needed to separate politics and religion, saying, “we don’t mix our religion with our politics and our economics and our social and civil activities — not any more . . . We become involved with anybody, anywhere, anytime and in any manner that’s designed to eliminate the evils, the political, economic and social evils that are afflicting the people in our community.”

In the same speech, he described himself as an adherent of black nationalism.

A Budding Anti-Imperialism

Soon after, Malcolm was to take the first of two trips to Africa. These trips had an important impact on his ideas. He met with several important African heads of state — including Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana and Gamal Abdul Nasser of Egypt — and was influenced by the ideas of “third worldism.” In general terms, this was the view that the world was dominated by two superpowers — the United States and the Soviet Union — and that the developing countries of the world represented an independent alternative.

When Malcolm X returned to New York, he announced the formation of the Organization of Afro-American Unity (OAAU), modeled after the Organization of African Unity (OAU), which brought together the different African heads of state. The OAAU was a black nationalist organization that sought to build community organizations, schools, black enterprises, and voter registration campaigns to ensure community control of black politicians.

After his visit to Africa, Malcolm began to argue that the black struggle in the United States was part of an international struggle, one that he connected to the struggle against capitalism and imperialism.

He also began to argue in favor of socialism. Referring to the African states, he pointed out, “All of the countries that are emerging today from under the shackles of colonialism are turning towards socialism.”

He no longer defined the struggle for black liberation as a racial conflict. “We are living in an era of revolution, and the revolt of the American Negro is part of the rebellion against the oppression and colonialism which has characterized this era,” he said. “It is incorrect to classify the revolt of the Negro as simply a racial conflict of black against white, or as purely an American problem. Rather, we are today seeing a global rebellion of the oppressed against the oppressor, the exploited against the exploiters.”

Malcolm no longer believed all whites were the enemy, but he maintained the need for separate all-black organization: “Whites can help us, but they can’t join us. There can be no black-white unity until there is first some black unity. There can be no workers solidarity until there is first some racial solidarity. We cannot think of uniting with others, until we have first united ourselves.”

But Malcolm’s new conception of the struggle also led him to question his previous understanding of black nationalism. In January 1965, Malcolm admitted that this previous understanding of black nationalism “was alienating people who were true revolutionaries, dedicated to overthrowing the system of exploitation that exists on this earth by any means necessary.”

Lost Promise

During this period Malcolm’s political ideas were evolving rapidly — a development cut short by his death. By that time, Malcolm X had already become one of the most important radical black figures in the United States, and his influence was growing, especially among younger activists.

Malcolm X was gunned down just as he was beginning to “think for himself,” as he put it, and to express a radical program for black liberation. His premature death and the subsequent suppression and decline of the black movement have made it easier for second-rate reformists to claim Malcolm as theirs. But anyone who listens to Malcolm’s speeches or reads any of his writings can be in no doubt as to his trajectory, which is summarized well in his famous “Ballot or the Bullet” speech, given April 3, 1964, in Cleveland:

No, I’m not an American. I’m one of the twenty-two million black people who are the victims of Americanism. One of the twenty-two million black people who are the victims of democracy, nothing but disguised hypocrisy. So, I’m not standing here speaking to you as an American, or a patriot, or a flag-saluter, or a flag-waver—no, not I. I’m speaking as a victim of this American system. And I see America through the eyes of the victim. I don’t see any American dream; I see an American nightmare.

It is impossible to predict how Malcolm’s politics would have developed had he lived. He had embraced ideas that put him squarely on the left of the black nationalist movement. His hostility to the system and the twin capitalist parties, his commitment to end racism, and his identification with anti-imperialism, represented an enormous contribution to radical politics.

Ahmed Shawki is the author of Black Liberation and Socialism, from which the following is adapted.


How Sex Became a Civil Liberty

New Books in History   APRIL 6, 2015

Leigh Ann Wheeler is professor of history at Binghamton University. Her book How Sex Became a Civil Liberty (Oxford University Press, 2013), examines the role of the American Civil Liberties Union in establishing sexual rights as grounded in the U.S. constitution. Wheeler begins in the bohemian New York with the personal biographies of individuals who established the ACLU for the protection of anti-government speech. Early ACLU leaders displayed sexualproclivities and outlooks outside the mainstream. Beginning with obscenity laws that hampered the distribution of contraceptives and birth control information, the ACLU legally pursued sexual practice, expression, and the right to privacy as civil liberties. Presenting their own clients, building collisions with advocacy groups, providing legal briefs to decision makers, directing activism, and influencing public opinion, the ACLU brought about change in a wide array of laws that restrained and criminalized sexual behavior and expression. This was not a smooth process of advancement. The implications of class, race, and gender created conflicts, contradictions, and ironies in establishing the sexual rights of individuals against the contrary rights of others and communities to unwanted sex and sexual content. As blacks and women entered the ranks of the ACLU in the 1960s and 70s they brought new conflicts within the sexual rights agenda. Reproductive freedom, rape shield laws, homosexual rights, and the rights of profit-seeking pornographers are some of the many issues of ACLU advocacy. While seeking to build a privacy wall around sexual expression and practice, sexual rights advocacy contributed to the current cultural saturation with sexual images and messages blurring the lines between public and private. Wheeler has provided a thoroughly researched, complex, and compelling history of how issues surrounding sexuality became recognized as civil liberties guaranteed by the constitution.


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